There are four main Grant Lee Buffalo albums, plus a compilation and b-sides collection. If you're looking for an introduction to the music of this stunning band, you can't go wrong with either Mighty Joe Moon or Jubilee, both of which are highly recommended.
Fuzzy grew out of a collection of homespun demos, and compared to the lush production on later Grant Lee Buffalo albums, it shows. But it's this raw feel that adds poignancy to the lyrics that tear into modern America ('America Snoring', 'Jupiter and Teardrop') and hark back to better days ('Dixie Drug Store', 'Grace').
The stand-out tracks on Fuzzy are stunning. 'Jupiter and Teardrop' is the story of a couple, Jupiter and Teardrop, caught up in a doomed love that's torn apart by Teardrop's constant run-ins with the law. 'Dixie Drug Store' is an atmospheric story of a man who wanders into a drug store in New Orleans and meets a woman there, with whom he shares a bottle of bourbon and a bed, only to find her and the entire contents of the drug store gone in the morning:
I shouted out for Mary, I darted out the door,
An old man on the wooden porch said: 'What you in there for?
Son, you got no business, the hoodoo store's been closed
Long as I remember, a century, I suppose.'
'But Mister I just spent the night with a young gal named Laveau.'
He said: 'The widow Paris done had a little laugh on you.'
I said: 'You mean to tell me, that was the Voodooin'?'
He nodded: 'Yes, none other, the Queen of New Orleans.'
The title track 'Fuzzy' and the sublime 'The Hook' demonstrate that the only ingredients you need to create beauty are a voice, an acoustic guitar and a bag of talent, while in total contrast 'America Snoring' rips into modern American culture with sharpened claws. Considering this is a debut album, it's astounding, though even better was to come.
Mighty Joe Moon (1994)
For many people Mighty Joe Moon is the album that defines Grant Lee Buffalo. The anger of Fuzzy is less evident, and instead there's a greater texture of sound, which is instantly evident when you look at the range of instruments played by the trio. On the debut album there's acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass, piano, drums and percussion. On Mighty Joe Moon there's all of the above plus banjo, dobro, mandolin, harmonica, pump organ, electric organ, tumbuk, tambourine, tablas, maracas, marimba, shakers and 'acquired hunks of metal'. And it sounds like it.
However, multi-instrumentalism doesn't necessarily make for a good album1, but good songs and good performances do, something that is in evidence throughout Mighty Joe Moon. From the ear-wrenching opening chords of the album ('Lone Star Song') to the spiritual beauty and acoustic simplicity of the final track ('Rock of Ages'), there's everything from jaunty country blues ('It's the Life') and suicidal balladry ('Happiness') to power-chord rock ('Side by Side') and bluegrass weirdness ('The Last Days of Tecumseh'). The lyrics deal with soul searching and the darker side of life, as these opening lines from 'Happiness' demonstrate:
Never mind me 'cos I've been dead
Out of my body
And been out of my head
The stand-out track has to be 'Mockingbirds', which was written while LA was being rocked by earthquakes. It's a stunning track, with Grant singing a falsetto chorus in counterpoint to a stirring cello performance by Greg Adamson (the cellist from Shiva Burlesque). Mighty Joe Moon is, therefore, highly recommended.
Copperopolis is arguably the hardest Grant Lee Buffalo album to get into, perhaps because the music is more understated and heavily textured. However, if you're willing to put in the effort there are hooks buried beneath the layers that will sink into your musical memory and won't let go.
Probably the highlight is the beautiful 'Even the Oxen', which looks at the state of the world through an analogy with the day-to-day realities of rural America:
It's safe to say, but useless perhaps
To point out that we've lost our instinct and awe in this day
And like the oxen ramming their heads on tin walls
We'll come to know mercy before the barrier falls
Also beautiful is 'Hyperion and Sunset', which talks about friends leaving Los Angeles after the earthquake, moving away from their home to Oregon, where presumably they won't suffer the devastation that inspired 'Mockingbirds'. 'The Only Way Down', which closes the album, echoes a familiar theme of Grant Lee Buffalo's songs - it's about how the struggle brings out the best in people, and is the story of someone who has come so far and suffered so much, yet who must push on and overcome all obstacles. It's not exactly a laugh-a-minute song, but it's based on a positive outlook, and the will of man to survive.
Although Mighty Joe Moon and Jubilee are the essential Grant Lee Buffalo purchases, Copperopolis has some glorious moments.
You would never describe the music on Fuzzy, Mighty Joe Moon or Copperopolis as 'stomping', but that's exactly what Jubilee is, and it is absolutely astounding. The confidence that shines from songs like 'Superslomotion' and '8 Mile Road' is palpable, and for the first time an entire Grant Lee Buffalo album is full of those air-chord moments that first surfaced on 'Jupiter and Teardrop'.
The songs are instantly captivating, from the feedback-induced power riff that introduces the opener 'APB', through the melodic REM-influenced 'Everybody Needs a Little Sanctuary' (which features backing vocals from Michael Stipe, no less), and onto the country-esque 'Come to Mama, She Say'. It was said in the music press that Grant Lee Phillips broke up the band at the peak of its creativity, and Jubilee is the evidence; as swan songs go, it's something else.
This is a highly recommended album, and along with Mighty Joe Moon, it's a classic that, sadly, most people won't have come across due to some typically shortsighted record company politics.
Storm Hymnal - Gems from the Vault of Grant Lee Buffalo (2001)
A strange combination of a greatest 'hits' album and b-sides and rareties, Storm Hymnal is a good introduction to Grant Lee Buffalo, though it's debatable whether it's better just to buy Jubilee or Mighty Joe Moon and be done with it (especially as Storm Hymnal is currently only available in Europe, not the USA).
The first CD contains 16 of the best tracks from the four Grant Lee Buffalo albums, and the second contains 14 b-sides, acoustic versions and other oddities, which is like a glass of water in the desert for the devoted fan. Unfortunately the devoted fan will already own all the songs on the first CD, which is a little irritating.
Still, if you're new to the band and don't have to pay an extortionate import price, then Storm Hymnal is worth considering.
Grant Lee Buffalo Websites
Official Grant Lee Buffalo Site - Stripped down to a history of the band (written by Grant himself), a discography and a few other bits and bobs, the official Grant Lee Buffalo site reflects the spirit of an ex-band rather well: there's not a lot to it. What is there is good, though.
Official Grant Lee Phillips Site - This is where the action is, with touring news, solo album sales, message boards, writing from the man himself, and the buzz that's associated with live performances, new albums and a solo career being forged. Nice one, Grant.